Any follower of British arts programmes on TV, from the South Bank Show backwards, will be aware of the bleating of Ken Russell and his ilk that no one really makes ’em like they did in the Sixties, when clever chaps freshly down from Oxbridge would be sent out with a curmudgeonly working-class crew and instructed to make films on anything that took their white-shirted fancy. Well, I have to report that Russell’s 1968 B/W film on Delius does back him up. Detailing the strange five-year relationship between Eric Fenby, the young amanuensis who helped blind dying syphilitic Frederick Delius complete some of his most noted works, it is very good indeed.
Russell wasn’t in fact an Oxbridge boy, he was more a self-made maverick, though he did benefit from the BBC system of sending out trainees with seasoned techies. The result was a string of accomplished films on the arts, Russell’s 1962 film on Elgar (called Elgar) being the one that made his name. But it’s this Delius film that will probably endure. Russell believed it to be his best work and it’s tempting to see it as at least partly an expression of his own persona – Delius the romantic, impetuous and dreadful genius figure foreshadowing the cantankerous old devil that Russell would become. Shot in expressive monochrome, it’s beautifully played by a hawkish Max Adrian (as Delius), Christopher Gable as the quivering prudish devotee Fenby and Maureen Pryor as Delius’s wife Jelka, a woman who had given her life to her husband, only to be told by him “It is only from art that you’ll find lust and happiness.” Russell is clearly siding with Delius and the art-is-everything bohemian idea which took root in the early 20th century and more or less held sway right to its end.
Later in his career Russell would get the budgets that would let him increasingly abandon reality in his portraits of composers, as he did in his films of Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Liszt. Here he’s restrained by Fenby – who collaborated on the script, doing for Russell what he’d done for Delius – and isn’t allowed to splurge. With the Delius film we see Russell kneeling before a man he considered an artist, before he fell for the grandiose idea that, since he was an artist himself, whatever he produced must be art.
© Steve Morrissey 2001